Monday, August 12, 2019

Shameless


It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Ralph E. Whittington (Clinton, Maryland), who passed away on August 6, 2019, at the age of 74. Ralph began his 36-year career at the Library of Congress out of high school and retired in 2000 as a curator of the main reading room. 

Ralph dedicated much of his life to archiving erotic films, magazines, and materials related to the adult entertainment industry. He served as a consultant to the Museum of Sex in New York City, the Erotic History Museum in Las Vegas, and the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, which granted him an honorary PhD. Ralph’s work was featured in The Washington Post, Spin magazine, Rolling Stone, and numerous other publications. Ralph also appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Howard Stern Show, and other radio and news programs, and was the subject of two documentary shorts by filmmaker Jeff Krulik, who dubbed him the “King of Porn.” 

Ralph had a wide range of additional interests, from motor sports and automobile history to attending high school football games, following athletic careers, and was always in search of a good barbecue joint. Also a lifelong music fan, he built a prized collection of rare and historically important R&B records, which have been donated to the Library of Congress. 

He was included in 2008-2009’s Dictionary of International Biography and in multiple editions of Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World. Ralph is survived by a daughter, Amanda, her husband, Mike, and a grandson, Spencer. A celebration of Ralph’s remarkable life will be scheduled at a later date.  



"King of Porn" (1996) d. Jeff Krulik

A Farewell to the King

What I’ll miss most about Ralph is his shamelessness.

It's at the very heart of “King of Porn,” Jeff Krulik’s 1996 documentary profile. Over 6 minutes and 40-odd seconds, we’re introduced to Ralph, and Ralph’s world: His love of high-performance automobiles, his prized record collection, his taste for fine, fine tobacco…and a glimpse of his gargantuan, ever-expanding archive of pornography and sex-related materials—all exhaustively, methodically catalogued, inspired by the exacting standards favored by Ralph’s employer, the Library of Congress. (A glimpse of the collection is the most the documentary can manage; even a feature-length study would only scratch the surface of Ralph’s decades of accumulation, to say nothing of Ralph’s thoughts on each item’s relevance, and the reasons for its inclusion.)

“King of Porn” raised all kinds of questions. Who was this odd, unprepossessing middle-aged man in jacket and tie, with his hypnotic yet indefinable, possibly Southern accent? What was any one man possibly doing with so much pornography? And he works at the Library of Congress? And he’s living in his mother’s basement? Has he no shame?

Media interest in Ralph and his collection was duly piqued, and with Ralph’s willingness to accept high-profile public ribbing with good humor, the jokes just about wrote themselves. He made an ideal subject for quirky human interest stories, whether for Spin or Rolling Stone or the hipper urban weeklies. Ralph found himself the subject of media interest from all corners of the globe. He courted this attention, and he embraced it when it arrived. Shamelessly.

And then there’s the jewel of Ralph’s collection, an oft-replayed VHS documenting an occasion when his research crossed the threshold into participation: An explicit sex tape in which Ralph performed with busty industry vet Chessie Moore. (The shoot was a highly unconventional fan club perk.) Ralph took great pride in his participation, and it was a rare houseguest indeed who escaped Ralph’s company without a screening. (An eager Ralph showed it to me with great fanfare, after much advance hype, and his enthusiasm on the day was only slightly undercut by a few minor delays—first, in identifying the correct VHS tape; then, owing to technical difficulties with his ancient combination TV/VCR. In the end, he set me up in an impossibly cluttered guest bedroom, shutters drawn, to view it in solitude. Then, about halfway through the 20-minute-or-so running time, he startled me by suddenly popping his head into the room like a good ol’ boy jack-in-the-box, bellowing, “HOW WE DOIN’?”) Shamelessness on top of shamelessness.

* * *

Despite the wide recognition of the historical value and sociological interest in what was once considered cultural detritus, be it old comic strips, antique signage, or vintage cereal boxes, anything to do with pornography is still going to set tongues clucking. And candor about the stuff we avail ourselves of when the real thing is not an option (or use to supplement it when it is)—well, good luck with that. Serious documentation is not a priority.

Ralph saw this, and determined his role in the scheme would be a practical one. He recognized that there could be no fair hearing without evidence, no informed discussion without access. With no one else stepping up for duty, Ralph set about collecting that evidence himself, in as impartial a manner as he could. The ultimate evaluation of the material and determination of its importance was something he saw as best handled by others, somewhere down the road. Ralph simply assumed the responsibility of ensuring there would be historically relevant, adequately catalogued samples to consider.

That’s really an essential part of the story that was easy to miss in media accounts of Ralph and his collection, as on The Howard Stern Show, where Ralph was pitted against a Stern staffer in an ill-advised trivia quiz. But trivia-on-demand wasn’t Ralph’s strong suit; he was a big picture guy. Among the 4-hour DVD compilations, XXX-video ad slicks, and glossy beaver mags in Ralph’s carefully organized archives, one also finds vintage news clippings, like a snip about the introduction of the first swim trunks for men, a scandalously permissive development in its time. And obscure antique bawdy house coins, minted and distributed by whorehouses more than a century ago as in-house currency. (“House poke-her chips,” I can hear Ralph punning.) And so on. So while who did what to whom in scene three of a dirty babysitter DVD from 2003 was unquestionably of interest to Ralph, his larger mission was charting the evolution and development of sexual mores and attitudes, via a wide variety of sources.

Consider for a moment just how daunting a prospect that is. Understand that the costs of such a venture are coming out of the volunteer’s own pocket. Then ask yourself, who but a true blue, card-carrying horndog would even consider such an endeavor? Who else would be equal to the task? Who but a relentless, utterly shameless horndog like Ralph could even maintain the pace?

He couldn’t collect everything, of course. He followed current events, monitored the adult entertainment industry, and coordinated his efforts with video wholesalers sympathetic to his mission. He collected, indexed, and archived material he felt was historically important, which could be broadly broken into items relevant to the history of the adult entertainment industry, and items that uniquely reflect their era.

Accordingly, in conversations about his work, he was quick to separate provable, quantifiable facts from opinions and reasonable assumptions. Even his “King of Porn” sobriquet required an asterisk in his view, since the title was initially conferred upon iconic porn casualty John Holmes, and has more recently been associated with porn survivor Ron Jeremy—both of whom, Ralph insisted, were infinitely more deserving of the honorific.

There was an unusual clarity to Ralph’s conversation when talk turned to sex. His attitudes were frank and remarkably...unencumbered by prevailing social and societal norms. Library of Congress co-workers remember Ralph casually—shamelessly!—reading Hustler like the morning paper while carpooling to work. But his candid, unapologetic positions on matters generally viewed as controversial or inappropriate seemed honest reactions based on his own inclinations and experience. No political agenda. No social agenda. Ralph just really liked sex, porn, and just about anything to do with either, and he wasn’t shy about it. It was an interest—an obsession—that led him to his life’s work—work he approached with care, and took on at considerable personal expense. Box after impeccably catalogued box of old Seka tapes, swing magazines, Monica Lewinski novelties.… Dismiss it as a big waste of time if you like, plenty have. 

Not that how anybody else might feel about any of it appeared to factor prominently in Ralph's thinking. I liked to believe this was not so much him not giving a damn what other people thought, so much as his attention was occupied by what he saw as other, more pressing matters—like sex, dirty movies, fast cars, and old records.

It's too soon to know if history will smile on Ralph's efforts, if he will emerge in the final analysis as some kind of ahead-of-his time gonzo sociologist, X-rated free-speech champion, or latter-day hero of the sexual revolution. These are determinations better left to others. But I do know that Ralph was, by his own proud accounting, a cradle-to-grave horndog, that he truly loved sex and porn and sexy porny things, without apology. And that he put his time, his money, and his love of porn into his small, mostly unloved, not-yet/maybe-not-ever appreciated contribution to the sum total of human knowledge. Lofty talk, but that is the truth of it.

He didn't do it because he thought it was brilliant stuff (though obviously, he liked a lot of it a lot). He did it because, whatever your feelings about it, it's part of who we are in this time and place, and if he didn't document it, probably no one else would.

He saw an opening, and he filled it.


© 2019 Wyatt Doyle, all rights reserved.